Tuesday, February 27, 2018

From Typewriter to Pen

Susan here: This post by Fred Rife came along at an opportune moment. I was reflecting on the value of journal writing in my own life when this came across this blog post on that very topic. Fred said it so beautifully, I wanted to share his words with our readers. He has graciously allowed us to repost it here.

Fred's Journal
Guest post by Fred Rife

I’ve been reading about writers’ choices of tools for getting words into the world. Some write exclusively by hand in journals, or by hand as they create draft upon draft while working towards a published piece. Others use computers, and others bypass finger usage and dictate verbally into recording devices.

While thinking about the methods and almost-religious fervor with which writers prefer their chosen method for extracting words from their souls, I remembered my first experience using a machine to write nearly fifty years ago.

As a boy of about eight years, my dad took me to his office on weekends as he caught up on reports or other work. He let me “help” him by teaching me to use the office typewriter. The typewriter felt like magic as I rolled a piece of thin paper into the carriage and began striking keys with my fingers that caused metal-armed letters to hit the ink ribbon, seeing the letters on the paper, the clickety-clack of striking the keys, the bell ringing as I learned to throw the carriage return back to the left and begin a new line.

While writing in my journal today I began remembering my journey from that heavy, mechanical device to electric typewriters to desk computers to my current laptop. I’m remembering how, with each new device, I thought the improved technology would make me finally become a writer, how it would unleash my words that always seem stuck behind a wall covering my soul. As if writing is about tools instead of words.

I also remembered how, with that first typewriter, I began editing on the go by ripping page after page out of the machine and tossing them in the trash when I made even a single mistake. I’m still mining that memory and its implications across the years as I’ve struggled to lay perfection aside and simply write shitty first drafts.

In recent months I’ve begun writing in lined journals using a 0.5 mm micro black-ink pen. My handwriting has only ever been barely legible and I’ve always despised the slow speed of writing by hand. But after a personal coach encouraged me to keep a handwritten journal in recent years, I’ve begun to appreciate the tactile and contemplative nature of writing by hand. Initially I used a pencil for journaling but realized I was spending as much time erasing as actually writing, like my first typewriting experience. Writing now with a pen I’m less inclined to edit as I go, and I simply write to get words on the page, whether for my own viewing or to work into a piece of writing using my laptop.

I’m thankful for my new practice of writing by hand in a journal. It may not produce publishable pieces but at my age I’ve finally, and hopefully, learned that my first and most helpful goal is to simply mine the words from my soul.


Fred Rife lives and works in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He graduated from the US Naval Academy (political science major), piloted Marine Corps KC-130 flying gas stations, and has spent many years serving humanity as a state government bureaucrat. He’s married to artist Jennifer Rife, and their daughter, Michaela, is a PhD candidate in art history. The family talks a lot about visual, literary, and music culture, and they binge watch Parks & Recreation. In previous decades Fred wrote personal columns and opinion pieces for small-town newspapers. Today he runs from politics and conflict, and leans in to things of peace and beauty. He avoids topics in his personal writing that might jeopardize his exciting life as a bureaucrat. Fred’s on Twitter (@fredinwyo) and his newest blog site is Writing behind the lilac bush.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


guest post by Alan Wilkinson

Lynn here:

My favorite Brit is back. (We first introduced Alan to the Writing Wyoming blog back in August of 2016 with A Jobbing Writer.)

Today Alan's talking about what he calls impersonation--or capturing voices in writing--something he does exceedingly well. 

I never set out to be a chameleon, and when it was first suggested that I might be one I wasn’t happy. It was the late Malcolm Bradbury, founder of the United Kingdom’s first M.A. program in creative writing, who pointed out to me that I seemed to have a gift for “impersonation,” adding that it might be an issue.

That was back in 1989. I had recently completed a degree in American Studies, the third year of which I spent in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Back home, in my final year, I pointed out to my departmental head that I’d spent most of the year abroad attending writing classes (and cleaning windows around town in order to feed my family). I requested that I be allowed to submit a creative final-year dissertation. God bless him. He said yes, and I gave in ten short pieces, all based on my experiences in The Land of the Free, and mostly narrated in an American voice. Over the next year or two managed to publish seven of those stories in literary quarterlies.

I was still engaged with American tales when I started my M.A., and that’s when Professor Bradbury puffed on his pipe and opined – during a workshop when I was under the microscope - that there was “of course” the issue of impersonation. I don’t recall that he offered a solution, and there the matter rested.

Recently, a friend who has been interviewing me for a project on writers, their methods and lifestyles, asked me whether I had learned about impersonation while doing my M.A. at the University of East Anglia. Absolutely not, I replied. And, as I considered the question, it occurred to me that it went back much further than that.

As child, my siblings and I copied the adults around us. There were five of us: three older ones, born before the War, two more of us post-1945.

We spoke like well brought up middle class children because, despite living in public housing, we had a well-spoken father.

His mother – who raised us in those formative years – was the daughter of a ship’s captain; her father-in-law was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. We were constantly lectured about grammar, pronunciation and usage.

I was the youngest. Until I was six I hardly mixed with other children. Then we moved to a new neighbourhood, teeming with kids who met up to play on the open spaces that now surrounded us. I joined them for games of football, cricket, cowboys-and-Indians. And they mocked me, for sounding posh.

Naturally, I did what children of newcomers (we might say immigrants) have always done. I copied the locals. I learned some colourful expressions; I learned to swear. My father harrumphed and told me I sounded like a “gutter-snipe,” a “street urchin” and suchlike. But I loved this Cockney argot. I got pretty good at it – and I could switch it on and off.

Chip butty?
By the age of nine I was picking up Americanisms from the TV, as were my mates. It was cowboy talk, mostly, with a smattering of Highway Patrol. Ten-four.

In the early 1960s we suddenly became aware of our own regional accents. Thanks to the Fab Four we all introduced Liverpudlian words and phrases into our daily talk, glibly punctuating our conversation with words like “wack,” “gear,” “fab,” “chip butty” and “I’m gonna comb me hur.”

And so it went on. I simply loved the music of those words. I was utterly convinced that I came from a place (outer London) with no accent, no character to its language, no inflection - and I wanted all of those. At 18, 19, 20, I spent hours, late at night, listening to French radio to study the accents and cadences of a language I longed to master. I would still give my eye teeth to be word perfect. I learned Spanish and adopted all manner of linguistic affectations when it suited me. But whenever the conversation turned to football (soccer) I invariably lapsed into Cockney. I still do.

You dirty rat!
When I started writing – vignettes from the factories I worked in – the dialogue was frequently in a Yorkshire or Cockney voice, occasionally Geordie (that is, from the north east of England). It depended on who I was working with at the time. But my authorial/narrative voice, by contrast, was generally in the elevated diction of the authors I was reading: P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, G K Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe. I developed a liking for long sentences.

But in conversation with friends my talk – theirs too – was still laced with Cockney, or with a new vocabulary we’d picked up from 1930s gangster movies: “You dirty rat!” delivered, naturally, from the side of the mouth. It was fun. It made life more interesting.

Having fun on a typical "summer" holiday--
in the French Pyrenees in May
When I developed my passion for American writing it was as if I had another language to learn – which in truth I did. I wanted first to decode it, then to speak it, like a native. So I practised. Finally, finally, my ability to imitate paid off. I remember a proud moment when I was one of a team of 14 writing for a TV soap. In conversation, the producer remarked, “Let’s face it, you’re the most authentic Yorkshire voice on the show.”

Over the past 25 years, as a self-employed writer, a lot of my bread-and-butter work has involved gathering and writing other people’s stories – either as part of a corporate history or as a straight ghost-written project. The ability to capture their words, and the musicality of their native tongues, the inflection of their voices, the cadences, and to translate it all to the page, has been a crucial part of the service I can offer - and the way I make my living.

And I must stress that it’s more than a service. In many cases it’s an homage, a measure of my own respect for a person’s character, as reflected in the way they speak. So yes, call me a mimic. I’m okay with that.

Alan Wilkinson lives and works in Durham, England, where he has had to tune into yet another regional accent - although he still struggles with such local constructions as ‘He’s went’, or ‘I telled him.’.

He has recently published a first novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, (available here) and is currently working on the biography of a Welsh Member of Parliament (retired).

Next up will be a reflective piece on his life-long attempts to establish an intimacy with the landscapes he loves. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Scavenger Hunts and Lemon Pies

By Susan

Right now, I'm in a creative writing class with the inimitable Kristin Abraham. One of our assignments is The Pocket Scavenger, a quirky little book that asks you to find everything from "four squares" to "something that was given to you" to "a hair sample."

I'm about ⅔ of the way through the hunt. What is fascinating to me is how everything seems to turn into a writing prompt. Every bit of detritus I've stuffed into the pages and the Ziploc bag that holds it together sparks a story.

The four square pieces of decorative glass from my writing cabin recalls the hours my husband spent wiring and drywalling a bare garden shed for me. The hand-painted watercolor bookmark was given to me by an inebriated man in a bar at Denver International Airport. He carried a briefcase full of them and said he handed them out when he thought someone needed one.

I've got more than a "sample" of hair -- it's a giant hunk from the first time my hair was cut short when I was seven. It was in a box of keepsakes my siblings packed up from the house after my parents died. I screamed when I pulled it out. Kristin, be forewarned. And be grateful a dear friend reminded me that I couldn't use the stitches from my mole removal for "something on your body" due to the whole bloodborne pathogens thing.

Almost there! Zesting and sectioning a pound of lemons is a
bit of a pain in the orifice.
For "something that was discarded" I saved a label from a bag of lemons. I sent my husband to the store for three lemons to make ONE pie, and he returned with an entire bag because "they were cheaper." Twice as much as I needed, so in a short few days he started making noises about baking a second one to use them up. Wouldn't want them to go bad, after all. I smell an ulterior motive for his hidden agenda. I also smell lemon pie baking right now.

This project has opened my eyes to the abundance of stories that has been right under my nose all this time. The book has a few lines for each item to tell its story. For most of these, I could go on for pages.

I clearly have little patience with drawing maps.
I'm not entirely sure I'm doing this scavenger hunt exactly as the author intended. I get the impression she envisioned her dear readers donning clothes with ample pockets and heading out to explore the world. She even has a space to draw a map.

I turned inward, instead. As I went down the list, I would think, "I have that. I know just where." Another lesson for my writing, indeed. I have what I need already. I don't need to look outside myself.

I don't know about you, but some days I feel blank, devoid of stories to write. Maybe after this experiment, I'll look around and fix on one item. Maybe one I've had so long I've ceased seeing it. I'll bet dollars to donuts it contains a story.

I'll invite you to do the same. Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


post by Lynn

Have I ever mentioned that I lived in Los Angeles for three years back in the eighties?

Fish out of water is an understatement.

It might tell you something about how much I missed Wyoming when I tell you that I got all teary one time when I saw a Christmas card portraying a snow-covered pine tree.

I missed pine trees. I missed snow. I missed home.

But there were some good things about LA.

Like whale watching.

When you go on a whale watching tour you climb on a boat with a lot of people. The first thing you do is jockey for position to claim a good viewing spot near the window (and out of the wind, preferably).

Then you hang on while the boat churns out to sea. The leaders of the tour have ideas on where the whales are and they also have rules on how close they can get to the whales so as not to harass them, but all that is invisible to the folks on the tour.

As soon as the captain powers down the engine, everybody starts looking around. 

Then you wait.

And wait.

The boat lurches side to side. You sip on your water bottle and wait. You scan the ocean, training your binoculars on the wavy horizon until your arms are too heavy to hold up any more, so you lower them, and wait.

And wait.

You think to yourself, "Maybe I should have gone to Disneyland instead."

While you’re waiting, you notice the salt on your lips and lick them. You gaze into the water and wonder what fishy things are lurking down there. You listen to the calls of the sea gulls as they criss-cross the boat’s wake.

You check the horizon again. Nothing new.

You watch a couple who are standing a few feet away and notice how the young woman is trying to keep her hair tidy in the wind by patting at it. She keeps swiping her finger under her eyes as if she’s afraid her mascara is running, which it is.

First date, you decide.

Somebody points and yells, “Spout!”

You turn in that direction just as a fountain of water spatters the surface of the sea. Then the maw of a blue whale rises up out of the liquid floor, followed by the massive barnacled slide of a whale body.

You quick snap a photo. Then the tail, etched with white scars, flips way up into the air and back down, slamming the surface. A curtain of water splashes the crowd on the boat.

Everybody laughs and applauds, as if the whale were performing a stunt just for us.

You giggle with your friends as you wipe the salty water from your face. You show off your photos and look at theirs.

Then you wait, again. And wait. On a two-hour tour, that might be all the whale you see. Sometimes no whale appears at all.

A writing session, I’ve decided, is a lot like a whale watching tour.

The ratio of waiting time to the arrival of perfect words is a lot to a little. Sometimes nothing worth anything arrives.

Delete, erase.
But still, you’ve got to show up. You've got to watch and stay alert. You've got to be there to catch the words if by some miracle they decide to rise up out of the floor of your mind.

You've got to be ready for inspiration to splash you and start you giggling. Or crying. Or whatever the words do to you when they come.

You’ve got to get on that boat and go out to sea if you want to see a whale, and you’ve got to show up to the page if you want to write.